The Tragic Death Of Wilbur Wright

Think of the Wright Brothers and you probably think of a couple of guys wearing derbies in a bicycle shop who, yes, worked really hard, but basically got lucky and managed to build and fly the first heavier-than-air machine. And they lived happily ever after, probably still working on bicycles. Like most of history, the truth is considerably more complicated and considerably more interesting.

According to Biography, the brothers — Wilbur, born in 1867, and Orville, born in 1871 — were best friends growing up. Tinkerers, yes, as kids often are. But that spark that led to humanity slipping the surly bonds of Earth was struck not by luck, but by their father, a minister who often had to travel for work. After one trip he brought the brothers a toy helicopter, powered by a rubber band. And the rest was history — but not yet. Growing up, Wilbur was a lad with a vision and a plan, until he was about 18. He was badly injured during an ice hockey game, struck in the head with another player's stick, and he changed.

Orville and Wilbur worked closely their entire lives

The plans to attend Yale were shelved. He didn't even finish high school, as Ohio History Central tells us. Yes, he went into business with brother Orville. The first partnership was a newspaper — Wilbur edited, Orville published. Later, there were bicycles — not only repairing, but also designing and building a model they dubbed the Wright Flyer. And they leaned into the possibilities of human beings taking to the air in motorized marvels.

The Wrights worked on gliders first, then moved to installing an engine. One of their main contributions was designing a way to control the flight, using wires to "warp" the wings — "imagine twisting the sides of an open-ended spaghetti box in opposite directions," as Time phrases it. Wilbur published their first articles on their key developments in 1901, and two years later their invention spent nearly a full minute in the air on December 17, 1903 — Orville at the controls, says the Library of Congress.

Orville flew, while Wilbur provided stability

It took time to convince the world that the brothers had succeeded. They weren't the only ones who were working on the problem, but they became the most contentious, legally and otherwise. As Time reports, they not only invented motorized flight, but they also invented patent trolling, suing other aircraft developers, claiming exclusive rights to basic aeronautical principles. They were quite aggressive and frequently successful. Even when they lost in court, they were still able to convince other inventors to pay them licensing fees, and that ploy was very profitable indeed. The downside (except for a cottage industry for the legal profession) was that the brothers' strategy stunted and stymied development in the field, creating an inventive impasse that wasn't resolved until 1917. When America joined World War I, its first military aircraft were purchased from other countries.

The brothers remained close throughout their lives. Neither Orville nor Wilbur ever married. Although Orville succumbed to a heart attack in 1948, you might guess that Wilbur died in some flight-related catastrophe. The truth is much more mundane. Wilbur became seriously ill during a business trip to Boston in April 1912. He returned home to Ohio, but died of typhoid fever on May 30.